“Language is the expression of our culture and our land. We cannot have one without the others. We cannot describe our culture and our land if we do not have language.”
– Queensland Indigenous Advisory Committee
Language is a touchstone of cultural heritage and identity. Just as an ecosystem cannot survive without keystone species, many Indigenous cultures are at risk of collapsing and dying. It is the outward expression of words embedded in language that will sustain cultures. Shared language is the gateway to Indigenous histories, folklore, songs, poetry, and distinct teachings about interactions with nature, each other, and the rest of the world at large. It is finally becoming acknowledged that Indigenous language preservation and revitalization are the pillars of a healthy, diverse, and truly multicultural planet.
So What Are the Facts?
Indigenous languages—languages spoken by the native inhabitants of particular geographical regions—account for more than half of the currently recognized languages on the planet. While linguists may debate exactly what defines a language, most agree that there are somewhere around 7,000 distinct living languages and that roughly 4,000 of those are Indigenous.
Considering that Indigenous peoples make up only about 6% of the world’s population, the incredible global diversity of Indigenous languages underscores the reality of the small, localized populations who speak many of these languages as well as their inherent fragility. According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger project, at least 43% of the languages currently spoken in the world are endangered to varying degrees—among them, a plethora of Indigenous languages.
At CanTalk, we are deeply committed to the preservation of Indigenous languages. Through our work with remote communities, government agencies, and global networks, we are proud to foreground the critical knowledge of many Indigenous language speakers while also opening channels of communication in new and meaningful ways within Canada and beyond.
How Indigenous Languages Are Lost
Throughout history, languages have always evolved—some weakening and dying out while others gained strength and momentum. That being said, the current state of global languages represents a potential mass extinction of Indigenous languages that is unlike anything ever encountered before.
So why are Indigenous languages so vulnerable now?
History repeats itself and then exceeds itself!
Language loss, gradual extinction, decreasing vitality…all compound the pressure on existing cultures and languages:
- Contact With Other Peoples – As remote communities become increasingly connected to mainstream cultures, predominant languages are becoming more prevalent. This can position Indigenous languages as inherently “less useful” and make for a quick decline in the number of Indigenous language speakers, even in relatively isolated communities.
- Loss of Land – Whether caused by natural disasters (such as fires, droughts, or famines) or geopolitical circumstances (such as wars or government-mandated assimilation), loss of land, often resulting in mass migrations, is also directly associated with the loss of Indigenous languages.
- Changing Way of Life – As traditional ways of life are overtaken by technology and globalization, Indigenous languages are often lost and replaced by dominant languages that streamline daily communications.
- Death of Elders – When elders pass away, Indigenous languages may die with them if they haven’t been passed down to younger generations.
Globally, we’re at a pivotal moment in terms of capturing and preserving Indigenous languages! Without rapid and effective interventions to combat the factors above, Indigenous languages will likely continue to die out at an unprecedented rate.
We Can Turn the Tide Towards Revitalization!
Some Indigenous languages continue to thrive, and many more are widely spoken throughout certain communities in specific contexts (such as at home or during cultural practices), but let’s face it, the overall trend for Indigenous languages is a downward one. So, what is being done to combat this discouraging trajectory?
It’s called cohabitation. Link Indigenous languages with predominant languages. This can be a clear path for those actively seeking to promote Indigenous language preservation and revitalization. To be successful, it requires full participation and support by governments and government agencies as well as by grassroots movements initiated by individuals and small communities alike:
- Government initiatives to promote Indigenous languages may include:
- Giving official language status to Indigenous languages
- Developing well-defined linguistic policies
- Mandating Indigenous language instruction at every level of education
- Offering official services for speakers of Indigenous languages, including in sectors such as health, transportation, recreation, and more
- Initiatives spearheaded by individuals or Indigenous communities for supporting Indigenous languages may include:
- Developing resources, classes, and opportunities for the usage and celebration of native languages
- Creating active networks of Indigenous language speakers
- Cultivating opportunities for elders to pass their knowledge to younger generations
Ways We Can Support the Preservation of Indigenous Languages
Let’s take a closer look at some of the broad Indigenous language preservation strategies outlined above, all of which can work together to revitalize native languages around the globe:
Creating and Maintaining Language Resources for Each Indigenous Language
Creating and maintaining visual, audio, and video resources documenting individual Indigenous languages is crucial to language preservation. Concrete records that capture the fundamentals of vocabulary, grammar and syntax, punctuation, emphasis, and more make it possible for learners to grasp an Indigenous language without having to start deciphering it themselves from scratch. Well-organized records and the development of language teaching materials can pave the way forward for new language speakers to emerge and for Indigenous languages to experience new growth and regeneration.
Using Interpreting Services To Preserve Endangered Languages
The inability of native language speakers to communicate effectively in mainstream culture for work, health, education, or a wide variety of other needs is one of the primary reasons why Indigenous languages are disappearing. However, immediate, high-quality language services can remove such language barriers.
At CanTalk, our on-demand phone, video, and in-person interpretation and translation services allow for organic communication between Indigenous language speakers and speakers of predominant languages. When effective language services are readily available, the dream of preserving Indigenous languages while allowing for Indigenous peoples’ natural integration into mainstream society can become a reality.
Using Social Media To Promote These Languages
Though it may seem counterintuitive in some ways, social media platforms can be hugely beneficial in terms of Indigenous language support. The development of Indigenous language networks around the globe can help remaining speakers connect, teach, and document their knowledge through audio and video recordings that can be widely shared at the click of a button. Visibility on social media platforms may also attract younger generations to explore Indigenous languages in more depth.
Taking a Language Class Yourself!
In many communities around the world, Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals alike can now sign up for language classes with Indigenous language speakers. The act of learning Indigenous languages together foregrounds their significance and can help erase social divisions and promote deeper cultural understanding and awareness.
Wondering where to take Indigenous language classes? Look online or contact local cultural centres or educational institutions.
Yes, thousands of Indigenous languages are currently endangered or at risk around the globe. But, with education and intentional approaches, their preservation and revitalization are also becoming realities.
Ready to learn more about how CanTalk’s state-of-the-art Indigenous language services can help you set the stage for preservation of these languages in your professional or personal life? We’d love to get you talking. Contact us today for more information!